Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe in Enlightened.
There have been plenty of annoying women on the small screen; neurotic Monica on Friends, brashy victimising Janice Soprano, sour Betty Draper, narcissistic Hannah Horvath. None of them especially fit into what’s desirable, even acceptable, for a woman to be. Indeed they all colour outside those lines because they’re too naggy, too cold, too beautiful, too ugly, too pushy, too selfish. I think of them because they have all been outdone by Laura Dern’s character in HBO’s woefully under-watched (and now under a fierce social media/Mike White/critic's campaign to be renewed for another season) show, Enlightened.
I am haunted by Dern’s character Amy Jellicoe’s mascara streaked, snarling face which peers out from the advertising for the show. She is incredibly annoying as Amy Jellicoe, a corporate employee who has a breakdown, gets therapy, has an epiphany about how to live her life more fully and in the second season turns whistleblower on her company. Yet she and all the other flawed and irritating female characters before her are the ones challenging the way women are presented in popular culture. What’s more, Amy Jellicoe represents a new kind of character, one who despite rubbing just about everybody the wrong way is ultimately good. In her words, she “wants to be an agent for change”. And the change has been not only for the character but for allowing a wider range of female characters to give us the irks. Ones that make you watch a show with your hands over your eyes or gasp in horror at their behaviour. Perhaps even ones that nick a bit too close to the bone.
“Amy’s inner vision of herself as a chill New Age seeker is rarely matched by her outward appearance. She’s needy, she’s manipulative, she’s passive-aggressive. Yet despite her flaws, her heart is pure. Her idealism is real. When she becomes a corporate whistle-blower, it’s apparent that Amy’s most agitating qualities are inseparable from her capacity to be a crusader, however clumsy and unformed. In Sunday’s finale, when she barrels into the repercussions of her own actions, watching “Enlightened” feels something like hearing a blast of cymbals, a wake-up call. It’s one of the most powerful episodes of TV this year, a perfect ending to a perfect season.
In her speech at the F Word forum in Sydney last year, Germaine Greer famously said that women should be ‘more difficult’, they should be more pushy about what they want, about what’s good for women, and how to have a more fulfilling life. At least Amy Jellicoe is always nothing less than difficult. For creator, writer, director and star of the show, Mike White, one of the important things about a character like Amy – someone so flawed and despite her new age jargon, unsure of her place in the world – is that she challenges us, on the show and off it.
In an interview for Vulture, White said that Amy Jellicoe represents a unique problem in popular culture. Men don’t want to see a female lead. Especially one who doesn’t fit what we’ve been conditioned to see.
“If I have a male protagonist, it’s a studio movie, and if it’s a female protagonist, it’s an indie movie. That’s just how it is. It’s not about the studios. It’s about America and who goes to see movies. Women are interested in men and women, and men aren’t interested in the woman’s story. They just aren’t. There are exceptions, but by and large ... The devaluation of the traditional female roles or the traditional female approach, it starts to feel like this is what’s wrong with our country.”
White is quick to defend Amy, as all of us should be. For surely if we can forgive Tony Soprano his murdering, cheating ways, we can forgive a woman who is perhaps ever so blinded by ego and revenge, who is a little awkward and jarring. Someone who has been hurt and despite all of her crystals and meditation and inner healing, is still hurt.
As White says,
“As absurd as some of the ways she goes about affecting change are, it’s coming from a place of [feeling that] change is possible. So many people come at it from a more cynical place and I like that about her. That’s what she ultimately symbolizes, somebody who is hopeful but doesn’t necessarily know how to place it.”
If hope is annoying, well, it’s still hope. And surely that is the best kind of place to begin.
P.s. Watch the show!